BWW Interviews: Sitting Down with Susan Blackwell
The University of Memphis recently welcomed the spirited Broadway and television actress Susan Blackwell as a guest artist. Her workshops, which centered on creative self-expression, were free and open to the public. I attended both and found them exciting and worthwhile.
Susan's first workshop, "Now. Hear. This." focused on listening and communication skills. Her second program, "Die, Vampire, Die!" was inspired by the original Broadway musical [title of show], and centered around exploring artistic freedom and taking creative risks.
Even though I walked in with no definitive expectations, these classes weren't what I'd expected. At this stage in my career, I was surprised and delighted to discover new ways to tap into my creative reservoirs. I also loved watching the diverse group around me share stories, break barriers and grow.
Susan is one of the most engaging and charismatic individuals I have ever encountered. Naturally, I had some questions about what makes her tick.
CS: You're best known for playing yourself in [title of show] on Broadway. What effect did seeing and hearing yourself as a stage persona night after night have on your self-concept?
SB: It made me much braver! I am truly introverted by nature. The character of 'Susan' in [title of show] is a distilled version of some of the more private aspects of my personality-behaviors that previously I would only have shared with my closest friends. Sharing that on stage every night-safely surrounded by my closest friends, and being embraced so lovingly by the audience-has made me very brave. I am now much more relaxed being my weirdo self wherever I go.
CS: You are, to my knowledge, unique in the world for holding down your corporate "day job" while performing on Broadway. Why did you make that unusual choice?
SB: Partially out of necessity-I've got to pay my mortgage! But also out of choice-I like owning real estate, and being solvent, organized, responsible and structured. I'm excellent at my corporate job-it's a good, healthy part of who I am. It's amazing how each piece of my professional life-the creative and the corporate-have complimented each other so beautifully, and made me better at both. It also makes me incredibly well-equipped and credible when teaching creativity and self expression to my corporate clients!
CS: We've all heard famous stories about people who develop their greatest strengths in response to their greatest challenges. Does your own success story fall into that category?
SB: I think so. I am a big fan of identifying and facing my fears, both large and small. I think everything meaningful that I've done-as an artist, educator, business person, and human being-has emerged out of facing my fears and seeking to understand, order, process and (ultimately) free myself of the wounds and challenges that life presents. Like we discussed in the 'Die Vampire, Die!' workshop, it's like spinning the crappy parts of life into something beautiful! (Spinning Crap Into Gold...that'll be the name of my autobiography!)
CS: You didn't swear during your workshops, but you did mention several times that you are fond of using profanity. What is it about raw language that you like?
SB: It's true-like pirates, sailors and truck drivers, I do enjoy using profanity! It's important to note that I don't always use profanity when I teach, and when I do, I have permission from the entire group to do so. For me, cussing is a natural part of my self expression, and it comes from a place of fun and true kindheartedness. Having said that, I recognize that some people prefer not to hear profanity when they're trying to learn or get through their day. And I completely respect that.
CS: You had an instant, and spectacular rapport with the U of M students. Is your ability to connect with people an innate talent or something you made a conscious decision to develop? Is your drawing power ever a double edge sword?
SB: It's true-I have a super power when it comes to connecting with people. Part of it is innate, but much of it is a by-product of my conscious work on developing the most relaxed, brave, connected, kindhearted version of myself. The 'Now. Hear. This.' Workshop that you attended was born out of my desire to share this super power with others, because I believe that type of rapport and connection is completely teachable and repeatable. I have never had anything negative come out of my ability to connect with others, because I also have a black belt in boundary setting. So it all evens out!
CS: In the middle of your "Die Vampire, Die!" workshop, you spontaneously stage-licked a participant's face like a puppy. It was a hilarious, off-kilter moment, however, it was also what I would call a "high risk" joke. Did you have any reservations about doing this, or do you trust your instincts completely?
SB: Let's be clear: that was not a 'stage lick'--it was a 100% real tongue-on-face LICK! To answer your question: I trusted my instincts completely. Earlier in the day, that same student had attended a Q&A session with me, and he had run up to me and licked my face (which is a silly bit of business that I sometimes pull when I'm interviewing celebrities...but that's another story...). So, when I licked that student's face, it was actually a callback (and payback) from a moment earlier in the day. Also, the same student had experienced a profound emotional response during the 'Die Vampire, Die!' workshop, and I wanted to give him a little pick-me-up!
CS: In our workshop, every participant--no matter how young, beautiful and talented--easily, eagerly and poignantly identified a personal vampire. Have you ever met anyone who told you they didn't have a "Vampire?"
SB: No. Never. I'm sure those folks exist, but I have not met them personally. I bet they're really, really awesome. Or completely annoying.
CS: In our society, the term "creative people" is usually reserved for artists. Since you have "dual citizenship" in both the corporate world and the arts, I'd love to know your thoughts about this.
SB: There is a significant movement in the corporate realm to approach business creatively. A significant part of my work with Susan Blackwell & Co. is teaching corporate folk to access their creativity and bolster their self expression. And I gotta tell ya, it's a truly beautiful thing to see ALL types of people approach their work in this way, no matter what path they're on.
SUSAN BLACKWELL is on a mission to free people's self-expression. As a performer, writer and educator, she champions this cause around the world, on Broadway, off-Broadway, in classrooms and writing, and on TV, film, sound recordings and the Internet. Most notably, she created and played a character based on herself in the original Broadway musical [title of show], and the off-Broadway musical NOW. HERE. THIS. (original cast recordings available on Sh-K-Boom records). She created and hosts the freewheeling chat show Side by Side by Susan Blackwell on Broadway.com. As an actor, she has appeared off-Broadway in [title of show] at the Vineyard, NYMF and Ars Nova, Volleygirls at NYMF, Speech and Debate at The Roundabout, The Kid at The New Group, Anon at The Atlantic, and Peter Patrone in The Heidi Chronicles. Television appearances include 'Unforgettable', 'SMASH', 'Person of Interest', 'Onion News Network', 'The Good Wife', 'The Sopranos', 'Law & Order'. Films: Margin Call, P.S.: I Love You, Margot at the Wedding. In addition to her creative accomplishments, she has worked in corporate management for 17 years. As the founder of Susan Blackwell & Co, she partners with likeminded, compassionate artists and thought leaders to deliver inspiring entertainment and educational offerings aimed at freeing people's creative self-expression.